Beyond man-as-he-happens-to-be

Beyond man-as-he-happens-to-be March 5, 2018


Divine mountains
The Himalayan peaks Shivling and Meru at sunrise   (Wikimedia Commons)


A little monthly reading group to which we’ve belonged for . . . oh, something on the order of twenty-five years met last night to discuss Fiona Givens and Terryl Givens, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us.  Here’s one point from the book that I very much appreciated:


A popular tweet reads, “‘Do to others what you would want them to do to you’ is a good rule, but treating people how they themselves want to be treated is better.”  That sounds reasonable enough, and one wonders why the Golden Rule wasn’t framed that way to begin with.  After all, shouldn’t the act of kindness depend on the other person’s perception of his or her needs or desires?  Actually, not necessarily.  That would be true if we all knew what actions and conditions were necessary to our happiness, most conducive to our thriving.

That may seem silly or presumptuous.  Silly, because of course I know what makes me happy.  And presumptuous, because I certainly don’t want you thinking your opinion of what I need is more important than my opinion of what I need.  But it is in fact neither silly nor presumptuous to doubt your own opinion about what will make you happy.  We are capable of phenomenal feats of rationalization and self-deception.  That is why Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote that what matters is not the question, “do we feel happiness?” but rather “is the objective situation such that we have reason to be happy?”  That sounds rather coldhearted and analytical.  However, we all, at times, brush up against the fact that we are not always terribly good judges of what makes for our own flourishing — and that is what Hildebrand is suggesting.

His point is made even clearer if we understand the insight of the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, who traces to Aristotle this particular understanding of ethics.  Aristotle recognized a “fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.”  It is this “essential nature” that is not satisfied by chocolate or prime-time television.  And the only proof we need of its reality is our dissatisfaction, alone among life forms, with a purely material existence.  We know from experience that we are not satisfied with such paltry prizes, even though we are often distracted by their glitter.  Before Christianity was a twinkle in the cosmic eye, the entire occidental philosophical tradition recognized that we carry within ourselves the seeds of a nobler, better self than the one we are today.  Therefore, as MacIntyre continues, “Ethics [or we could say, religion] is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.”  Here, however, is the real value of this definition:  “To say what someone ought to do is at one and the same time to say what course of action will in these circumstances as a matter of fact lead toward a man’s true end.”  (80-82)




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